The War Liberals: From Wilson to Bush


If there is one thing historians understand, it’s that history does really repeat itself exactly. History is the study of the past in all it’s local and unique particularity. Yet still, some forms of human behavior do fall into patterns, and when people make the same mistakes over and over again, it’s worth asking why.

The New Republic was born in the fateful year 1914, on the eve of the first global war. Throughout it’s history, this magazine, a leading organ of American liberalism, has time and again found itself loudly supporting wars, using progressive rhetoric to defend militarism, only to suffer regrets afterwards.

Here is how The New Republic experience the World War I. At first, they were unsure whether to support the war or not since both sides included autocratic nations (Russia on one side, Germany on the other). But even so, the magazine focused most of its energy on attacking anti-war radicals, caricaturing them as pacifists). As the war progressed, The New Republic started to see it as an opportunity for spreading progressive values both at home and abroad, floating the idea that Russia was on the verge of redemption through a democratic revolution. (As the editors argued in their April 7, 1917 issue, there was a possibility of a “democratic revolution the world over.”) Lining up behind Woodrow Wilson’s interventionist policies, the magazine purged anti-war radicals like Randolph Bourne from their pages. When the war ended not with a flourishing of democracy but a vindictive peace at Versailles, the magazine was filled with regrets and second-thoughts, asking how they had been snookered into supporting an imperialist agenda.

That’s what happened from 1914 to 1919. Yet almost the same script, updated with new names but with very similar dialogue took place from 2003 to 2008. Again The New Republic attacked anti-war writers for allegedly being feckless and irresponsible; again they were snookered by a rhetoric promising a democratic revolution, again they ignored the dangers of militarism and imperialism; again they were shocked at the outcome and came to regret the carnage they helped unleash.

In his 1965 book The New Radicalism in America, historian Christopher Lasch has an excellent chapter on “The New Republic and the War.” Virtually everything he writes about The New Republic in its early days was replicated in recent years. “Faced with questions of which their principals supplied no answers, the editors of The New Republic, like so many ‘pragmatic liberals’ after them, took refuge in the rhetoric of hard-boiled realism, evidently hoping that the outward appearance of tough-mindedness would conceal the flabbiness of their thought,” Lasch writes. “They took particular comfort in ridiculing the pacifists, for whom they professed a fine disdain.”

Lasch locates The New Republic‘s errors in their unthinking, vulgar pragmatism, which made them susceptible to calls for activism, even if the results were foredoomed from the start: “It was as if The New Republic upheld activism, internationalism, and commitment not because they promised better results than a policy of non-intervention but because they were somehow desirable in themselves, not as policiees but as attitudes which it was appropriate for political pragmatists to hold.”

The lure of power was also a factor. The magazine wanted to be a player in the world of policy: to influence Woodrow Wilson they had to sign on to his crusade. To be anti-war was to risk being marginal.

I would add one other factor: American liberals are very uncomfortable thinking about militarism and imperialism. Liberals tend to see international relations through the prism of the law: the problems of the world are due to outlaw regimes (with the Kaiser’s Germany or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). What gets lost in this framework is the fact that there are international problems that are caused by unequal power relations among nations, by the fact that the world’s most powerful nations (the United States and its allies) can set the agenda of global politics. It’s not just “rogue states” that cause wars. Unless liberals learn to think about imperialism and militerism as problems, they will go on repeating the mistakes of World War I and Iraq.

8 thoughts on “The War Liberals: From Wilson to Bush

  1. It’s not just an inability to see imperialism and militarism as problems. It’s also an inability to understand that everyone else in the world does not necessarily see the U.S. as the reluctant policeman of the world and shining city on the hill, as we tend to. Unfortunately, simply to mention the fact that there are points of view in the world different from our own is to invite howls of hysterical outrage and accusations of lack of patriotism, will, etc. from right-wing morons and their opportunistic representatives/enablers in Congress, the White House & the media.

  2. A good article on this subject is Michael C. Desch. “America’s Liberal Illiberalism: The Ideological Origins of Overreaction in U.S. Foreign Policy”. International Security 32.3 (2008) 7-43.

    I recommend looking it up.

  3. You and Lasch seem to be making different arguments. On the whole, I think his is more thoughtful.

    Lasch writes: “The editors of The New Republic, like so many ‘pragmatic liberals’ after them, took refuge in the rhetoric of hard-boiled realism.” That sounds dead on to me. But note the reference to “pragmatic” liberals. Not only does that suggest the existence of other more idealistic liberals, but it locates part of the problem in an attitude–pragmatism–that is not unique to liberalism.

    All political schools of thought have purists and pragmitist strands, and both approaches can be taken to a counter-productive or even disasterous extreme. Lasch reminds us of one of the more misguided episodes in the history of liberal pragmatism, one that is worth singling out for criticism, especially now; but it comes with a larger point about the perils of “pragmatism” as such, a vice which conservatives and radicals have also fallen pray to over the years. Your analysis seem to suggest that if we adopt a philosophy other than liberalism we will avoid the problem Lasch is referring to; but that misconstrues his thoughtful and nuanced point.

    The difference between you and Lasch is also evident in your reference to “unthinking, vulgar” pragmatism. That description fundamentally misdescribes how a magazine like TNR exerts influence. The problem is not vulgarity, but a kind of misguided intellectualism. Their pro-war editorialists often have Ivy League educations, and the sophisticated sheen of their arguments is part of their appeal. The problem they highlight is not stupidity, as your jab implies; it is the more disturbing and Laschian thought that no amount of education and intelligence guarantees that we will get major political questions right.

    Finally, your concluding paragraph seems to have little connection to Lasch. You seem to suggest that seeing international relations through the prism of the law and through the prism of power are mutually exclusive, and that liberals do one at the expense of the other. I’m not sure how you could get that impression. Liberal philosophers who write about international relations emphasize power imbalances quite a bit: check out the work of Thomas Pogge and Charles Beitz, (two of the more better known ones) if you want examples.

    The most puzzling thing however is that you would close this particular post by claiming that imperialism and militarism are a blind spot for liberals. Such a conclusion seems out of place in a discussion of American involvement in World War I: back then the US did not exert imperial influence in Europe, and so its involvement in WWI cannot plausibly be construed as an example of imperialism. Historically speaking, there have also been many times when American liberals did make an issue of U.S. imperialism: liberal critics of the Vietnam war are the most prominent example. To take but one example from the history of TNR, you will recall that time in the 1980s when many of the contributing editors wrote in to the magazine to protest its support of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua. Their anti-imperialist stance letter was far more representative of U.S. liberalism than the editorial they were criticizing.

    I could give other examples, but I hope my point is clear: your sweeping generalizations about liberals, American or otherwise, are inaccurate and unfair.

  4. I think it’s fair enough to say that Lasch and I have a slightly different analysis of what led the New Republic to support World War I, which is why I added the last paragraph (which was meant to sum up my views, not Lasch’s).

    There have, of course, been anti-war liberals but I think the tendency I identified is a strong and persistent one within liberalism (and certainly within the New Republic). Your references to Vietnam and Nicaragua support my point. In the early phases of the Vietnam war, most liberal publications (including the New Republic) supported the war, which was after all being prosecuted by liberal politicians (JFK and LBJ). And the fact that the New Republic supported a strong policy of intervention in Nicaragua is perfectly in keeping with their prior support for WWI and their subsequent support for both Gulf Wars. We have nearly a century of the magazine supporting American militarism in the name of democracy and human rights.

    About the use of imperialism and militarism in reference to WWI — that was the language used by radicals at the time (see the editorial Floyd Dell wrote in the Masses during WWI condemning the New Republic for its militarism — ). Support for the war was condemned at the time as imperialism not because the United States was seen as having imperialist designs but because it was allying itself with two leading imperialist powers (England and France).

    If I’ve painted liberalism with too broad a brush stroke, this posting can be re-read to talk only about New Republic liberalism, not American liberalism tout court.

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